Editors' Note: Guest blogger Jim Toevs co-founded the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission. In 1992, Jim was the Democratic nominee for Congress against then-closeted Arizona Congressman Jim Kolbe. He resides in Alamos, Sonora, Mexico.
Once again, I am amazed at the continuing impact that one, young, gay man's life and death has had on me personally, and on our culture. Yesterday we learned that Jason Collins chose the number 98 for his NBA basketball jersey to commemorate Matthew Shepard's death in 1998, even as Collins remained in the closet concerning his own homosexuality. How many other people have chosen their own quiet way of remembering Matthew and the tragedy of his torture and death?
For me, it has been numerous visits to Matt's Fence, where he was left to die by the two young men who murdered him. Located in an isolated field on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming, for some inexplicable reason, Matt's Fence is still standing there after fifteen years, disturbed only by the few tokens of love left on the ground where he suffered, by pilgrims like myself. On my last visit, less than a year ago, when I got disoriented, and had just about given up on finding the fence, I was literally led to the fence by a buck antelope. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life.
At one point several years ago, I floated a trial balloon to a number of wealthy gays with the idea of buying the property where Matt's Fence is located, and building the Matthew Shepard Inter-Mountain Peace and Justice Center, as a memorial, not only to Matthew, but to all of those who have died because they were "other". At that time there were no takers, but I still think it is be a worthwhile cause, and would be willing to spearhead such an effort if the interest is there, or can be developed.
What a great place for Jason Collins to retire one of his "98" NBA jerseys. And how many other folks would come forward with their stories of how Matthew's death impacted their lives? Such a Center, located on Interstate Highway 80, would be a magnet for thousands of people crossing the country and it could help to change the consciousness of the Inter-Mountain West as it relates to sexuality, and "otherness."
Whether or not such a physical monument is ever built, the memory of Matthew Shepard will continue to live in the minds and hearts of literally millions of people. Perhaps, it is because Matthew personifies "every boy". Matthew grew up in Wyoming. I grew up in Idaho until age eleven, and then in rural Central Washington State. But it is more than that for me, and I suspect for others like Jason Collins.
There is some universal identity that crosses all barriers of age, race, sexuality, gender, and financial status. Maybe it is a very basic human identity. Matthew was no saint. Matthew went into that bar that night looking for friendship and hopefully, to get laid. The fact that it ended badly is something with which we can all identify. The fact that it ended tragically is a reminder that, "there but for the Grace of God, go I."